Japan is projected to witness COVID-19 outbreak after the postponement of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games

April 03, 2020
About the author: Mr. Zhao Weiran, Fellow of the Taihe Institute.

(Credit: PP Sports)
Since late March, the most noticeable COVID-19 related news in addition to the significant outbreak in Europe and the U.S., has been the postponement of the Tokyo Olympic Games to 2021 and the subsequent sudden outbreak in Japan. In order to ensure that the Olympic Games could be held on schedule, the Japanese government not only didn’t adopt strict lockdown measures immediately, but also failed to introduce entry control measures in a timely manner and to conduct large-scale virus testing throughout society, thereby laying the foundations for Japan’s current epidemic outbreak.
I. Has the Japanese government concealed data about the epidemic?
According to data issued by Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare on April 2, the total number of confirmed COVID-19 cases rose by 2,381, up 206 compared with the day before, and Japan was on the verge of declaring a state of emergency. The Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said on March 28 that there was a possibility of an outbreak in Japan, and within two weeks, the number of Japanese infections might increase thirtyfold.
Although Japan’s COVID-19 data was called into question as early as February, it cannot be denied that the Japanese society has been functioning normally without community outbreaks or running out of medical resources. The principal reasons for this phenomenon are set out below.
First, the aim of ensuring the success of the Olympic Games became an “ideological shackle” controlling the number of tests in Japan. Abe sees the Tokyo Olympic Games as an important political legacy and expects the event to help the Japanese economy emerge from the doldrums as soon as possible. Therefore, the prevention and control policy of the Japanese government before the postponement of the event was that patients with mild symptoms should self-isolate and recover. Those who are qualified for the test should have had a high temperature above 37.5 (℃) or 99.5 (℉) with various corresponding symptoms for four consecutive days. As of April 2, according to data released by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare of Japan, the total number tested by the COVID-19 polymerase chain reaction (PCR) method in Japan was 34,510, excluding the “Diamond Princess” cruise ship. In comparison, South Korea had tested 250,000 people by March 15, despite having a population of about 50 million compared to Japan’s 126 million, so Japan’s testing rate has been far lower than that of other countries around the world and similar to the situation of the United States in February.
Secondly, Japan has a unique power structure and social mechanism. Technically, the role of the Japanese central government is a coordinator and planner. However, “senior experts” and corporate managers in relevant areas can more directly affect most industries and the public. The opinion put forward by Japanese experts is that the COVID-19 is a serious flu that human beings can never prevent but can only treat. This has also contributed to the Japanese public’s calm mood in face of the epidemic.
Third, the Japanese people have good sanitation and living customs. The Japanese have a tradition of wearing masks for nearly a hundred years, and they are highly allergic to pollen, so it is natural for them to wear masks in spring to prevent pollen allergies. Besides, the Japanese are used to keeping “social distance”. Furthermore, the elderly in Japan do not live with young people, and small family sizes have greatly reduced the possibility of family transmission.
Fourth, Japan is a world leader in the provision of medical resources. The country has the highest number of hospital beds per capita in the world, which means hospitals could directly cope with more than 200,000 COVID-19 patients without the need for the Japanese government to act to expand capacity. Although the number of doctors in Japan is relatively small, the ratio of doctors to nurses is among the highest in the world.
Therefore, while Japan’s COVID-19 data is highly questionable, the main reason for this is that its testing standards are so high that lead to the low testing rate, rather than that the Japanese government has concealed information. In this situation, Japan’s tally of officially-confirmed cases must have missed out large numbers. After the confirmation of the postponement of the Tokyo Olympic Games, and with expanded COVID-19 test coverage, the real data on the Japanese epidemic has begun to emerge, which is why PM Abe declared that Japan was on the verge of declaring a state of emergency.
(Credit: REUTERS)
II. Japan has suffered huge losses due to ineffective COVID-19 prevention and control measures
In a plenary session of the House of Representatives, Abe said that 2020 was a crucial year to advance “a total reassessment of Japan’s postwar diplomacy” and to establish a new era of Japanese foreign policy. As the COVID-19 outbreak takes hold in Japan, the epidemic has adversely affected the Abe administration’s diplomatic agenda and domestic political arrangements.
1. The post-Abe era may be brought forward.
At the internal affairs level, the greatest goal and political legacy of Abe during his tenure is to amend the constitution. Opposition parties such as the Constitutional Democratic Party and some of the Japanese people are opposed to amending the constitution. Japan’s parliament is currently focusing on anti-epidemic measures, no progress has been made in amending the constitution, and it is also unclear whether Abe will continue to push ahead with the constitutional amendment and related legislation enactment in the current circumstances.
At the diplomatic level, 2020 is the election year of the U.S., and the primary task of the Abe administration is to continue to consolidate the alliance between Japan and the U.S., to reinforce their cooperation in the fields of space and cyber security, and on the basis of the alliance between Japan and the U.S., to press ahead with the “Free and Open India-Pacific Strategy” with Europe, India, Australia, ASEAN and other countries. Plans for President Xi Jinping’s state visit to Japan in April have been delayed. In addition, Abe has proposed to continue to promote the settlement of territorial issues with Russia and bring about the signing of a peace treaty between the two countries. Based on the vision of “South Korea as Japan’s most important neighbor”, Abe hopes to improve bilateral relations and fulfil other key diplomatic tasks in 2020. Due to the COVID-19, the possibility of achieving these goals has greatly been reduced.
In regard to the prevention and control of the epidemic. The Abe administration’s botched response directly caused the spread of COVID-19 on the “Diamond Princess” cruise ship, exposing the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to strong criticism from opposition parties. The Abe administration was also slow to implement travel restrictions, and it was not until March 9 that the government began imposing tighter border controls. The government is seeking to sustain the economic stimulus provided by tourism and the Olympics Games, but the slow response has raised questions about its governance ability. In terms of Japan’s policy on the COVID-19, the epidemic initially caused by imported cases has evolved into small-scale cluster infections in parts of the country, along with increasing risk of community transmission. The absence of a special center for disease control and the lack of coherence between central government and local policies have altogether raised further doubts about the Abe administration’s competence.
The many uncertainties brought about by the epidemic have led to an 8% drop in Abe administration’s approval rating. Although it has not fallen to an alarming level compared with previous cabinet approval ratings, it provides a new impetus to Abe’s opponents or his potential successors within the LDP and heralds an early arrival of the “post-Abe era”.
2. The postponed Tokyo Olympic Games has exacerbated serious problems in the Japanese economy
Affected by the outbreak, the Bank of Japan has downgraded its economic forecast from “modest expansion” to “weak growth”. There are three main areas in Japan’s economy that has been affected by the epidemic. One is that the services industry has been hit hard. Japan’s tourism, catering, retail, transportation and other industries have encountered major problems. Second, the supply and capital chains of automobile manufacturing, and electrical and electronics engineering industries are under pressure. Third, the postponement of the Tokyo Olympic Games will deal the worst blow to the Japanese economy.
The postponement of the event has delayed the “Olympic dividend” and hindered Olympic-related projects, thereby impairing the momentum of and confidence in economic growth. The postponement will directly cost the Japanese government nearly $10 billion, which will further put the economy into recession and make it difficult to alleviate deep-seated problems such as aging, national debt and structural imbalance in Japanese industries, and may trigger risks in both financial system and real economy.
(Credit: The New York Times)
From the perspective of international trade, Japan’s total exports have declined for fifteen consecutive months and its imports for ten consecutive months. Given the impact of the COVID-19 on the global economy, and despite a four-month trade surplus (the highest since September 2007), a positive impact on Japan’s economy is not imminent. As oil prices plunge, the Yen appreciates sharply, and the Nikkei index falls below 20,000, Japan’s economic outlook will continue to deteriorate.


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